The first thing​ Estrella remembers being told about her father, in Victor Erice’s shadowy masterpiece The South, is that before she was born he predicted her sex and gave her a name. ‘It is a very intense image,’ she says in voiceover at the beginning of the film, ‘that in fact I made up.’ She made it up, but we have just witnessed the scene, the pregnant mother on the bed that is now the daughter’s, the father sitting there waving the pendant he uses to make his prophecies. So we are seeing what she imagines as well as what she sees: it’s part of ‘the magic of the cinema’ that we hear about in a letter read aloud to us later in the story, but for that reason also part of the strange and rather desolate game that Erice is playing with the medium, since ‘magic’ here is what invites people into illusions and doesn’t let them go.

The South, first released in Spain in 1983, ten years after Erice’s better-known The Spirit of the Beehive, has its first British showing in cinemas this month, chosen by Pedro Almodóvar as one of 13 films that he especially admires. It is billed as unfinished, and it’s true that the film, based on a novella by Adelaida García Morales, was meant to have a second part, where Estrella, who has never seen the literal south of Spain, journeys to Seville in search of traces of her father’s past; and that the money ran out before this section could be shot. Also true that the film as released ends with her preparing for her trip and speaking the words: ‘At last I was going to get to know the south.’ But those words themselves, in the light of what we have seen, are evidence of her continuing illusion about knowledge.

Apart from the prenatal image, most of what we see in the film belongs to Estrella’s memory, except that we see her inside her memories as if she were in a movie. She says she doesn’t remember much about her mother, and is instantly contradicted by the beautiful images that unfold as she talks: the mother sewing, the mother painting, the mother reading, half in shadow, as so many moments in the film are, a sort of album of Dutch paintings. The cinematographer is José Luis Alcaine. Estrella is played by Sonsoles Aranguren when young, Icíar Bollaín when older. The transition from actress to actress is effected elegantly by having the first go to school on one bike, the other return on a different machine.

We see some of the sources for Estrella’s idea of the south in a box full of postcards of Seville: palm trees, the river Guadalquivir, ladies in mantillas and frilly dresses, lots of silent music – that is, pictures of guitars and people dancing. But even where the film seems closest to photography or painting, it still moves, and is inflected by the yearning and unhappiness of Estrella as she continues with the story she doesn’t understand. It’s a remarkable effect: real, indifferent houses, rooms, streets, fields are tinged with mystery and loss. Hitchcock often produces this result by planting an as yet uncompleted crime in an innocent neighbourhood, so that we look at every door and window as if they were accomplices, and it’s not an accident, as they say, that he is acknowledged in The South by the appearance of a poster for Shadow of a Doubt. The title, for good measure, plays on the name of the film Estrella’s father watches because an old girlfriend stars in it: Flower in the Shadow. All flowers are in the shadow here.

The film’s end is in its beginning. Estrella is asleep, she is woken by the sound of voices and running feet. A name is called out, that of her father, Agustín. No answer. He has disappeared at night before, we learn, tempted to make the journey back to the south he will never see again, even going so far as to wait in a hotel for a train he will decide not to catch. This moment itself is represented in a remarkable image: Agustín on a bed in the dark, fully clothed, smoking, half-light coming in through a dusty window, a painting by Whistler perhaps rather than Vermeer. But this time, as the film starts, Estrella says she knows her father is not coming back – because he has left his magic pendant under her pillow.

She has other reasons for knowing, as the movie’s great late scene shows. He invites her for lunch at a hotel. They are the only guests in the restaurant, a noisy wedding is taking place in the next room. Agustín, amiable and enigmatic as always, says he is ready to answer any of his daughter’s questions about his life and what has been happening, and graciously, as always, fails to say anything of significance. Estrella leaves, and never sees him again. But before she goes, at a point where it seems as if he might answer her question (it has to do with the woman he saw in the movie), he interrupts her by raising his hand and inviting her to listen to the music coming from the wedding celebrations next door. It’s a paso doble, an echo of the south in this cold northern town, but more important, it’s the same piece that was played at the party after Estrella’s first communion, where Agustín saw his mother for the first time in many years, and where he danced with his daughter to just this tune. She doesn’t remember at first; then she does. And we remember for her that there was much talk at the first communion of this event – the little girl all in white with a tiara – being just like a wedding. The problem is not that she can’t marry her father, it’s that she already has, and even death will not effect a divorce. And here a recurring image from the film’s early stages comes to mind. Agustín is leaving, on his motorbike, riding away down a long tree-lined country road, literally disappearing from view; he is walking down a corridor in the hospital where he works, away from us. He’s always going; will never go.

What was the problem in the south that he left? Is the mystery cleared up at all? There is talk, from Estrella’s mother and Agustín’s relatives, of quarrels with his father at the time of the Civil War – the narrative time of the film is autumn 1957 – and of how things changed with Franco’s victory; and there are suggestions that the mother as a teacher suffered from Franquist reprisals. But the centre of the story seems to be the old flame, the woman Agustín lost to her dreams of the cinema. After he sees her in Flower in the Shadow he writes to her, and we see him scanning her response, hear her voice on the soundtrack, as if she were reading the letter in his head. She made four movies, she said, and then became disillusioned with her career – it wasn’t what she had hoped for, and her fame went no further. All she does now, she says, is reflect on the passage of time. She doesn’t want to hear from him again.

This sequence is rather banal, and at first seems like a mistake, both technical and tactical. Technical because it is the only moment we leave Estrella’s point of view, and the straying seems gratuitous and awkward. And tactical because we think a political history would have been more satisfying than this Hollywood tale of Agustín’s romantic obsession. But the banality of the story, which may after all be Estrella’s invention, enhances rather than depletes the sadness of the whole film. Even if the story is true, it still serves only to remind us that when it comes to our obsessions we don’t exercise impeccable taste, and any sort of past can be a prison if we don’t know how to escape from it.

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